Kansas City @ Indianapolis
Saturday 4:35 ET
These clubs squared off two weeks ago at Arrowhead Stadium, with Indianapolis coming out on top 23-7. Chiefs coach Andy Reid admitted after the defeat that Jamaal Charles didn't get the football enough, finishing with 106 yards and a touchdown but handling just 13 carries. Expect Reid to recommit to his offensive centerpiece as Charles returns from an off week after Kansas City rested its starters in Week 17. Run defense is Indy's primary weakness, finishing the regular season ranked 26th against the run with 4.47 YPC allowed, the seventh highest clip in football. Should-be NFL MVP runner-up Charles projects to go toe-to-toe with LeSean McCoy as the Wild Card round's rushing leader. ... A primary concern for Kansas City's Week 18 passing game is the health of LT Branden Albert (knee), who hasn't played in a game since December 1 and will square off Saturday with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Robert Mathis. Weak-side edge rusher Mathis led the NFL in regular season sacks (19.5) and forced fumbles (8), keying the up-front portion of Indianapolis' top-13 pass defense. Stats like this are not always predictive, but notable nonetheless: The Colts held Alex Smith to 153 scoreless yards on 16-of-28 passing in the Week 16 game, sacking him five times and forcing Smith into three turnovers. Whereas Charles has a mouth-watering Saturday matchup, the same can't be said for Kansas City's quarterback.
The Chiefs' pass catchers are beholden to Smith's checkdown-oriented passing style, which can effectively generate chain movement between the numbers but generally doesn't challenge the intermediate and deep sections of the field. Kansas City was the only team in football this year to be led in receptions (70), receiving yards (693), and touchdowns (7) by its running back. The likes of Dwayne Bowe, Dexter McCluster, Donnie Avery, and Anthony Fasano are role players whose big plays must be created by offensive design and/or run-after-catch opportunities. For instance, if "No. 1 receiver" Bowe tops 70 yards at Indianapolis, it'll be the first time he's done so all season. McCluster quietly enjoyed a career-best year in 2013 on both offense and punt returns, but he's a slot receiver who averages 9.6 yards per catch. If the Chiefs are going to pull off this road victory against a team that creamed them two weeks back at their place, they'll absolutely need a huge game from Charles, Smith to avoid turnovers, and an energized, opportunistic effort from DC Bob Sutton's defense. This has been Kansas City's formula all season, and will not change.
The Colts' 2013 skill-position corps was hit harder than just about any NFL team by year-ending injuries (Dwayne Allen, Reggie Wayne, Ahmad Bradshaw), and rookie OC Pep Hamilton's offense exhibited maddening game-to-game inconsistency that could be fairly blamed on head-scratching play calling and personnel usage. Hamilton seemed to find a late-year groove, however, as Indy topped 24 points per game the final seven weeks, winning five of its last seven. The one constant was Andrew Luck, whose supporting cast didn't always cooperate but still dramatically improved his completion rate (60.2%), TD-to-INT ratio (23:9), QB rating (87.0), and sack percentage (5.3) from his rookie year. Over the season's final month, Luck threw eight touchdowns compared to one interception, and in Week 16 picked apart Kansas City underneath while absorbing just one sack and five quarterback hits. The odds don't favor a huge box-score game from Luck against the Chiefs' at-times lethal pass rush, but Indianapolis obviously has a big edge under center. ... Indy's offensive uptick coincided with the late-year demotion of free-agent bust Darrius Heyward-Bey and promotion of Griff Whalen and rookie Da'Rick Rogers into major roles. This was Luck's target distribution from Week 14 on, with a revamped wideout corps: T.Y. Hilton 39; Rogers 23; Whalen 20; Trent Richardson 19; Coby Fleener 17; Donald Brown 15; LaVon Brazill 6; DHB 3.
Pre-Game Injury Update: The Chiefs are getting back OLB Justin Houston from a five-week elbow dislocation, but fellow OLB Tamba Hali did very little in practice this week and is listed as questionable with a knee injury. Hali has been mostly ineffective when attempting to play through injury this season. Kansas City's secondary is exploitable when the pass rush doesn't get home.
Rogers secured 4-of-6 targets for 42 yards in the Week 16 clash with Kansas City and will be a major X-factor in the Wild Card round. With a Brandon Marshallian skill set, 6-foot-2, 215-pound Rogers will have a compelling perimeter battle with RCB Sean Smith (6'3/214). ... Hilton is the Colts' target and big-play magnet, polishing off an 82-1,083-5 breakout sophomore season with at least five receptions in all but two of Indy's final dozen games. Kansas City's corners are big and physical, but don't run particularly well. Burner Hilton clocked a 4.34 forty at his 2012 Pro Day. ... Slot man Whalen tagged the Chiefs for 80 yards on seven catches in Week 16. Though limited skill wise, Whalen is now playing about 60% of the Colts' offensive snaps as an inside possession receiver. ... Despite elite tools, Fleener's game lacks physicality and he increasingly became a non-factor down the season's stretch. The physical Chiefs do not pose a favorable matchup for Fleener, holding enemy tight ends to the NFL's fourth fewest receptions (61) and second fewest yards (640) this regular season. ... Kansas City was highly inconsistent in 2013 run defense, ranking 22nd in yards allowed and permitting 4.49 yards per carry, the eighth highest clip in the league. Brown and Richardson will continue to form a near-even timeshare in Indy's backfield, with Brown playing in most critical situations. Brown stung the Chiefs for 110 total yards and two touchdowns on 12 touches two weeks ago and is the more dynamic running back at this stage of their careers.
Score Prediction: Colts 21, Chiefs 17
New Orleans @ Philadelphia
Saturday 8:10 ET
Saturday's late game will be a battle between offensive masterminds Sean Payton and Chip Kelly, who trotted out the NFL's Nos. 4 and 2-ranked offenses in 2013 total yards, respectively, and Nos. 10 and 4 in points scored. Not surprisingly, this game has the highest over-under of Wild Card weekend at 54 points, which still seems conservative. Kelly's prolific rushing attack has the premier matchup on either side of the ball, taking on a Saints defense that ranked 19th against the run this regular season and served up 4.61 yards per carry, the league's fifth most generous clip. Favored by three points, the host Eagles can pull off this victory if they stay committed to the run, something Kelly has no problem doing as Philly finished fifth in 2013 rushing attempts. If you're in a playoff fantasy league, you'll want LeSean McCoy on your team. ... The Saints' defense is much stouter through the air, where DC Rob Ryan's unit finished No. 2 in pass defense behind only Seattle, and No. 4 in sacks (49). Unless New Orleans builds a big scoreboard lead, I'd look for Nick Foles to operate primarily as a game manager Saturday night, seeking to avoid turnovers and taking only manufactured vertical shots while Shady pounds on the ground. The potentially high-scoring nature of this affair may ultimately require Foles to do more, but I don't think that's what Kelly wants as long as the game is in control. ... Foles' target distribution from Week 13 on: DeSean Jackson 37; Riley Cooper 28; McCoy and Zach Ertz 22; Brent Celek 19; Jason Avant 17.
The Saints lost a critical component of their defense in Week 16 when strong safety/slot corner Kenny Vaccaro fractured his left ankle. Kelly regularly formulates opponent-specific game plans, and will very likely attack the hole, which last week was filled by a combination of Trevin Wade, Roman Harper, and Rafael Bush. Exactly how Kelly goes about this remains to be seen, but I wouldn't be surprised if Ertz takes on a bigger Week 18 role than usual. In Week 17, Bucs TE Tim Wright dropped a 5-58-1 number on New Orleans, seeing ten targets. ... Look for Ryan to stick top corner Keenan Lewis on Jackson for most of Saturday night's game. D-Jax remains a solid bet for a long passing play -- he always is -- but this could be a difficult matchup for him. Lewis finished the regular season as a top-18 cover corner in Pro Football Focus' grades and allowed a 67.4 passer rating on throws into his coverage, the 12th stingiest mark in the league. ... On paper at least, the matchup favors a productive game from Cooper, who runs most of his pass patterns on the left side of the offensive formation and will face off with fill-in RCB Corey White, who is only starting because Jabari Greer tore his left ACL in mid-November. Cooper costs just $5,500 in FanDuel's Wild Card tournament and could be a cost-effective option in daily fantasy leagues.
Whereas the Eagles are a decidedly run-foundation team, Payton's Saints generally pass to build leads and run to close out wins. New Orleans ended the year second in passing offense and fourth in pass attempts. Philadelphia played more competitive pass defense in the second half of 2013, but still finished dead last in passing yards allowed and 20th in sacks (37). The Eagles are vulnerable to savvy passing attacks because DC Billy Davis relies on heavy blitzing, forcing Philly to sacrifice back-end coverage. With Peyton Manning on a bye, Drew Brees is the heavy favorite to lead all Week 18 quarterbacks in yards and touchdowns. ... Davis will also have to devote specialized coverage to freakish mismatch Jimmy Graham in order to compensate for below average safeties and undersized slot corner Brandon Boykin, who stands 5-foot-9 1/2 and 184 pounds to Graham's 6'6 1/4, 260. The primary box-score beneficiary could be Marques Colston, another size problem (6'4 5/8, 224) in the slot. If the Saints play passing offense as Payton ordinarily aims, Graham and Colston could feed off each other between the numbers and have huge games. Davis will have to get creative. ... Brees' target distribution since Colston returned from a knee injury in Week 10: Colston 71; Graham 68; Darren Sproles 41; Pierre Thomas 40; Lance Moore 29; Kenny Stills 22; Robert Meachem 16; Ben Watson 14; Mark Ingram 9.
Pre-Game Injury Update: The Saints on Friday announced that Pierre Thomas (chest) has been ruled out for the Wild Card round, leaving backfield duties to Sproles and Ingram, with some Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet potentially mixed in. Sproles is shaping up as a good bet for 12-16 touches, while carries behind him could be distributed any which way. As explained in the next paragraph, I liked Sproles as a FanDuel play this week before Thomas' absence was revealed. And I like him even more now.
Moore, Stills, and Meachem are all capable of random big plays and games, but trying to pinpoint which of the three rotational wideouts will deliver in a given week proved futile all regular season. And I wouldn't expect that to change in the playoffs. It is worth noting that Moore has been the most productive lately, with stat lines of 6-78, 3-47, and 4-73-1 in Weeks 15-17. ... In-season speculation among beat writers concerning Sproles' reduced snaps had the Saints doing so in an effort to keep him fresh for the postseason. If so, the Wild Card round would be a good time to unleash him. Eagles ILBs Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans struggle in coverage, and Payton is adept at getting Sproles matched up on linebackers. Sproles is my favorite Week 18 FanDuel pick at a bare-minimum cost of $4,500. ... Thomas is technically the Saints' primary early-down runner and screen-pass specialist, but his role wavers week to week and can depend on New Orleans building leads to milk clock. Sproles is a better bet for Saturday night production against a Philly team that scores points in bunches, but played top-ten regular season run defense and poses a tougher matchup for on-the-ground ball carriers (Thomas) than space backs (Sproles).
Score Prediction: Eagles 28, Saints 27